Remembering a titan

A polyglot with a soft corner for Hindi, Acharya Narendra Dev’s socialist moorings reflected in his writings

November 03, 2017 01:40 am | Updated 01:40 am IST

STANDING TALL Acharya Narendra Dev

STANDING TALL Acharya Narendra Dev

We are at a peculiar historical juncture. On one hand, the world is celebrating the centenary of the Bolshevik Revolution and, on the other, it is witnessing the resurgence of the ultra-right in so many countries. Equally peculiar is the fact that three days ago on October 31, two kinds of advertisements appeared in newspapers. While one was issued by the Congress to commemorate the 33rd death anniversary of Indira Gandhi, the other was issued by the Information and Broadcasting Ministry to celebrate the 142nd birth anniversary of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel.

However, nobody remembered that the previous day also happened to be the 128th birth anniversary of Acharya Narendra Dev who remained a member of the All India Congress Committee (AICC) from 1916 to 1948 and who was one of the foremost socialist leaders, Buddhist scholars and educationists of the country. What future awaits a society that is afflicted with this kind of amnesia can be anybody’s guess.

Book cover

Book cover

Inspired by Marx-Engels

Born on October 31, 1889 in a lawyer’s family in Sitapur in Uttar Pradesh, Narendra Dev spent his formative years in Faizabad, the twin town of Ayodhya, and attended the Lucknow session of the Congress with his father in 1899 when he was only ten. When the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia took place on October 26, 1917, it had great impact on him and he was inspired to study the writings of Marx-Engels, Lenin and other prominent Marxists of that time. Till the end of his life, Narendra Dev remained a committed Marxist, although his Marxism was different from the Marxism of the Communist Party. Even philosophically, he remained an adherent of — what he called — “dialectical realism” rather than of “dialectical materialism”. Role of violence in social and political transformation was the issue on which he had fundamental differences with official Marxists. He believed in a socialism that was democratic, non-violent and humane.

Narendra Dev came to be known as Acharya when he took over Kashi Vidyapeeth, an educational institution that was opened as part of the freedom struggle, as its vice-chancellor in 1926. The same year, he along with Sampoornanand drew up a socialist agrarian programme that was accepted by the AICC in 1929. The 1931 Karachi session of the Congress set the socialist pattern of development as the country’s goal and Jawaharlal Nehru, who drafted the Karachi resolution, acknowledged that the origins of this resolution lay in the 1929 socialist agrarian programme. On May17, 1934 in Patna, Narendra Dev presided over the founding convention of the Congress Socialist Party whose other leading lights were, among others, Jayaprakash Narayan, Ramvirksh Benipuri, Minoo Masani, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya, Ram Manohar Lohia, Yusuf Meherally, E. M. S. Namboodiripad and Achyut Patwardhan. Addressing a function organised on February 19, 1989 in New Delhi to observe the 33rd death anniversary of Narendra Dev, Namboodiripad recalled that he was exposed to Marxist socialism for the first time when he listened to the Acharya’s speech at this convention. Another of the Acharya’s speech that made a great impression on Namboodiripad was the one that he delivered while seconding the Congress election manifesto at the AICC in 1936.

Narendra Dev was a polyglot and knew Hindi, Urdu, Persian, Bengali, Pali, French and German. He was one of the first persons who translated Aurobindo’s Bengali language articles into Hindi. Deeply interested in Buddhism, he wrote a voluminous study of the Buddhist philosophy in Hindi towards the end of his life. Titled Bauddha Dharma Darshan (The Religious Philosophy of Buddhism), it continues to remain non-pareil as no other comparable book exists in any other language. He also translated into Hindi the French version of Vasubandhu’s Abhidharma Kosha , one of the most important works of the Sarvastivadins, whose original Sanskrit text was lost and only the French version prepared on the basis of a Chinese translation could be accessed.

Writing in Hindi

The Acharya belonged to that generation of politicians who blended their nationalist politics rather well with their role as intellectual leaders, thinkers and writers of great distinction. Unlike Jawaharlal Nehru, who was only two weeks younger, Narendra Dev wrote mainly in Hindi and enriched the language with his seminal contributions. The Hindi region of today is in great need of such leaders.

Way back in 1979, at the instance of Chandra Shekhar who later became India’s prime minister for a short while, Brahmanand edited a volume of Narendra Dev’s writings titled Towards Socialist Society . In 1998, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library brought out four volumes of his selected works edited by Haridev Sharma. One hopes that his complete works will also see the light of day in the years to come. Unlike Lohia, Narendra Dev was not intractably opposed to the communists. Had he not died on February 19, 1956, the political history of the past six decades could have been very different. However, one must mention that when socialists parted company with the Congress in 1948, Narendra Dev resigned his assembly seat and contested from Faizabad in the ensuing by-poll. Congress put up a sanyasi Baba Raghav Das, painted the Acharya as an “atheist”, and clubbed him with communists as an enemy of “freedom of thought and liberty”!

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